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Tamara MC in Conversation with Athena Dixon, author of The Loneliness Files photo

What does a lifetime of loneliness look like, feel like in the body? Athena Dixon examines this question in her second book, The Loneliness Files, published by Tin House, and edited by one of my all-time favorite writers, Hanif Abduraqqib. Dixon’s debut essay collection, Incredible Shrinking Woman (2020), published by Split Lip Press, unpacks her different identities as a Black woman growing up in a small Midwestern town. She explores her desire to hide in a world where extroversion is king. For me, both books are about balancing a quiet inner life against the backdrop of a buzzing external world.

In The Loneliness Files, without pets or children, Dixon lives in Philadelphia alone as a middle-aged woman during the pandemic. Her family and friends live over 350 miles away in Northeast Ohio. While working 40-hour workweeks from home, she starts consuming true crime podcasts and YouTube videos, just to hear other human voices. She learns of the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who was found three years after her death, in front of her still humming television set. This story hits especially hard, and Dixon goes on a quest to explore personal and universal loneliness. Dixon is clear that loneliness didn’t just begin during the pandemic. It has always been there, and she shows this through including some of her journal entries.

As a middle-aged single woman, I was particularly interested in Dixon’s memoir. I’m an only child on my mom’s side, and both my parents are only children. I also come from a Holocaust survivor family, so any family I might’ve had, were murdered. Loneliness is my constant bedfellow. I also spent the pandemic in a bubble of one—just me, myself, and I. Podcasts, Netflix, and YouTube became my BFFs (they still remain my BFFs). I’ve been continually envious of people who have large extended families and oodles of friends.

I’m an introvert, and although I love one-on-one connection, I always feel left out in groups, so I feel a constant struggle of balancing my inner and outer lives. Even though Dixon comes from a large family, which we discuss in the interview, she also feels a great sense of loneliness. I felt so seen in Dixon’s memoir. What a relief—I’m not the only one who feels so lonely. Of course, I know this isn’t true on an intellectual level, but reading someone’s memoir in which they discuss their deepest fear of dying alone makes all of us feel a little less lonely and lot more seen.

The Loneliness Files is broken into three parts: Part I: Life as it is; Part II: Out in the World; and Part III: Coming Home. To add another layer of meaning, each part has a recommended listening, a playlist of music you can listen to as you read along. In our conversation, we discussed craft questions about the essay form, the endings of memoirs and whether they should be tied up neatly with a bow, and the differences between loneliness and being alone.

TM: This is your second book of essays. I’d really love to learn what the essay means to you. 

AD: I'm to the point where I don't call myself a poet who writes essays anymore. Essays have more freedom than poetry and not in terms of length but in the ability to manipulate worlds. The essay is a vessel for fluid memory, for working out ideas and connecting them to experiences in a way that is not only internal, but also has some connection to the greater world at large. I'm still getting comfortable in being more of an external writer. This book is the first time I've really made a conscious effort to reach out to the world by including research.

TM: How did you assemble your memoir-in-essays? How’d you decide where each essay fit?

AD: The book itself has had several different organizational structures. At one point I was going to write it as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. But it got to be unwieldy. Then I put everything in chronological order. This is not a straightforward memoir, but it made sense to put it in order. Then I realized I wasn't telling the whole story.

I wrote all the essays between March of 2020 through April of 2022. Then I decided that chronological order didn't make the most sense, so I sectioned the book into three parts by how loneliness shows up in the world. The only thing that I wanted to keep as a timestamp was to open the book on New Year's Eve and end the book on New Year's Eve. So, there's some kind of anchor point on each side, so you know that there's movement of time. You just don't have to know where the movement is in the middle part.

TM: Can you speak about your choice to use the present tense? 

AD: Present tense tends to build tension. I want people reading to be on that actual journey. I want them to feel like we're figuring out where we're going versus me telling you this is what happened, and this is how it was resolved. Readers feel like they have a hand in the story versus just sitting by a fire and being told the story. I want people to journey with me.

TM: I’d love to learn more about your daily journal.

AD: Between about 2011 and 2020, I journaled every single day, even if it was just one line. It was a way for me to get out things that I was feeling that particular day. I was going through a very, very bad breakup and divorce. I wanted to include some of my journal in the book because one of the best things I learned from my first book was that you don't want to end something on the idea that it's resolved. I wanted people to see from the excerpts over roughly 10 years that the loneliness I have is a constant. It's not me writing about it because of the pandemic. No, this is a lifelong thing that I'm dealing with. So, I'm going to open some of my personal notes for you to see. I'm also a big proponent of writers having a private folder they'll never share. I was willing to share some stuff, but the rest of those journals will never see the light of day.

TM: What did you mean when you said you didn’t want to end on something being resolved?

AD: It really came up during the edits of my first book, The Incredible Shrinking Woman. When I turned that manuscript into Split Lip, that book ended on an essay titled “Karaoke,” and that essay is about me being drunk in Center City, Philadelphia with my friends after a night of karaoke. My life was starting to come together in the way that I wanted to after such a tumultuous time that brought me to Philadelphia. When I turned it in for edits, my editor, Christine said, it's a good essay. It's a good ending, however, it's a little too neat. Because you're talking in this book about suicidal ideation and sexual assault and depression and divorce and adultery and all these things, but then you end the book like everything's good because you went to karaoke. So, we flipped the last essay to an essay titled “Depression is a Pair of Panties,” which was about being a high functioning depressed person. I'm still functioning, and there are good days, but there's still stuff that has to be resolved.

An ending is an ending, but it doesn't mean that the ending is the drop-dead point in whatever situation you're writing about. For example, my current book ends on an essay on New Year's Eve about a week after my aunt passed from COVID. I could have written something great about her memorial service, but it ends with me not knowing how to deal with grief and having to battle with the idea that I wasn't there when she passed. So, the situation is over, but it's not resolved. It's still a lingering ripple effect in my life.

TM: I've been in so many memoir classes, and the whole thing I’ve been taught is to wrap up the story neatly. I’ve always rebelled against this because life isn’t like that. So, I'm really happy to hear what your editor said and how you now think of your endings.

AD:  I was talking to a person last week about writing memoir. One of the things they were saying is that they were told memoir is only a small segment of a life and not a life as a whole. If that's a fundamental rule of memoir, then everything doesn't get resolved just because it's in the past. Life doesn't work that way. It does a disservice to readers. It’s a little bit disingenuous to make things neatly end. If it did, absolutely, because, fine, but generally, it's not how life works.

TM: I'm a single 51-year-old woman and loneliness is my biggest challenge in life. Every day it's a struggle. I come from a Holocaust survivor family, so I don't have many people in the world. Both my parents are only children, and I’m an only child. I have a tiny family, and I’m always so envious of people with large families.

AD: I have this massive family on both sides. But me and my sister were just the two of us. We always had these conversations where we feel we're very much like our own little mini-insular unit. Even though we have family, it's usually just me and my sister. Because in some ways we feel like black sheep. So, I have a big, extended family but the actual family that I spend the most time with is very small. Even in my friend group, I'm the single one, the one with no kids. There's only so much time and energy my friends can put into me because they have their own life. So, a lot of time, it’s me by myself and really coming to terms with the idea that I didn't think my life would be like this. I thought that I would have at the bare minimum, maybe not a husband, but a partner, somebody. But there's just me. Now that’s a difficult prospect.

I got divorced in 2013, and I've been single ever since. I've had a couple of dates, but I’ve been single since 2011 essentially when we broke up. The longer it stretches, I'm like, this is just my life. I don't know if I'm going to meet somebody. I don't know what’s going to change. The dating apps are absolutely not for me. Somehow someway some mystery partner is going to show up in the world, hopefully, but I'm kind of losing hope.

TM: What is misunderstood about loneliness?

AD: The fundamental thing that people misunderstand is that people who feel lonely are somehow completely and utterly disconnected from family and friends and community. It's difficult to explain when you tell people that you feel lonely, but they're like you have a mom and a dad and sisters and friends. I do. However, there is always this feeling of being on the fringe. I massively love people, and they love me back, and that's 100% true. For people who feel lonely, there’s an internal struggle to feel absolutely connected. People assume that it means that you don't have a community. I do have community. I just don't feel fully close to everyone, as much as I may love them.

TM: Is this unique to the human experience? Or to you? Or both? 

AD: It's a little bit of both. I'd say it's unique to me just because I'm choosing to write about my own experiences and explore it in a way that I didn't allow myself because I thought that it would be hurtful to people who are in my life to hear me talk about being disconnected and lonely. It's a human thing, especially now, the last couple of years, especially in our current society. You can pick up your phone and you're going to have notifications from every app, and you're going to have emails to answer. People had really no choice but to reckon with what their life looked like when they didn't have the option to connect in the ways that make us feel socially connected. 

Loneliness without an option is different than being alone. Being alone is a choice. I'm choosing not to engage. I'm choosing not to go out or to answer this email or this text, but I think loneliness is I don't know how to wrestle with being in some ways by myself. Emotionally or even physically in some ways.

TM: What are the positives of being alone, or even loneliness? 

AD: The first positive is this idea that you come to understand quite intimately what you need and what you require and what you desire in your relationships, because they're all different. It gives you a greater understanding of what allows you to thrive. You get very good at figuring out what drains you. Hyper-independence is a bad thing, but you become very, very good at getting stuff done. By yourself. But for me, the greatest thing is to have a sense of self that is not tied to my roles in anybody else's life. If I was no longer a sister or a daughter or an employee, I have a core sense of self that wasn't there before I had to experience all this loneliness. So out of everything, the good and the bad. That's the biggest advantage is knowing exactly who I am, without having to be defined from external sources. 

TM: What advice would you give to somebody who is feeling lonely right now? 

AD: The first thing I would say is that it is not any deficit in you that makes you feel that way. Your mind can go to, is there something fundamentally wrong with me? Why am I not connected? Why are people not in my life? It's not fundamentally you; it just may be for this moment in time you're solo. One of the things that really helped me through that blanketing sense of loneliness was that I couldn't think too far ahead. Sometimes I was like, okay, I got to get through this hour. I got to get through this minute. I got to get through this day. Once I was able to master that, then I started going out and doing things solo, and it sounds so self-care-ish. But it might be that you just have to experience the world by yourself. Just understand it's not you, and there's nothing wrong with you that makes you be disconnected from the world. It's just a space and time that hopefully won't last too long. It won't last forever.